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Preaching for Life’s Final Season

The statistics tell it all. The population is getting older. The first of us born in the so-called post-World War II generation of “baby boomers” are now in our early 70s, and even the youngest of this group—of which I am one—are turning 55 in 2019. Small wonder that something like Social Security has become imperiled. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt established a fund to help retirees after they turned 65, there were not that many such folks in the country in part because at that time the average life expectancy in the United States was just under 62 (it was actually 58 for men, 62 for women). Now life expectancy is almost 79 years, and the baby boomers aged 55–73 number around 75 million folks.

We’ve read the predictions of what this will mean for healthcare. We’ve read about how the need to care for people struggling with various forms of dementia will increase as the population with dementia skyrockets in the next few decades from around 5 million now to 14 million by 2060.

Of course the proportion of this aging population in churches is just as staggering. Sometimes we describe churches we deem to be in trouble by saying, “You see an awful lot of gray heads at that congregation Sunday mornings!” A church with an aging congregation is usually considered a negative. However, it is now clear that all churches are going to have a significant number of exactly such aging people, and this need not be seen as a sign of decline. It’s just our reality now. Yes, we need youth, so not surprisingly there are many church growth strategies that focus on getting and retaining millennials and Gen Xers, Gen Yers, and Gen Zers.

But what about strategies for preaching to our older population? Shouldn’t this be as vital an area of concern as learning how to speak the language of millennials? Aren’t the aging baby boomers in the next quarter century among the precious lambs and sheep whom Jesus expects us pastors to feed, tend, and nurture?

In Reformed Worship 128 (June 2018), we focused on issues related to mental illnesses and dementia. I wrote about preaching “The Sensitive Sermon” (p. 24). If you have not seen that issue, I urge you to find that in the RW archives because it applies here as well. In this article I want to focus on two general ideas I think we preachers can keep in mind that will provide vibrant preaching but also some tender pastoral care from the pulpit for our aging congregants.

As I do so, however, I will throw out a caveat: There is no such thing as a “typical” older adult. Probably all of us could think of someone who defies any stereotype or mindset one could name. (A couple of years ago I enjoyed an energetic three-and-a-half-hour concert by former Beatle Paul McCartney, who was 75 years old at the time!) So here I must write in some generalities, but I hope my words have some traction despite the exceptions we could name.

Will the Lord make himself large and plain and unmistakable in my last moment or in my final days? Will the promises I have clung to all my life seem more or less real when my end draws close?

First, when we preachers consider stories, allusions, illustrations, literary works, or other cultural artifacts to mention or quote, we should not forever be looking toward all that is current or hip. Yes, it’s good to display we are up to date. Yes, it may send positive signals to the younger set if we can show that we know who Beyoncé is or that we have heard of the Kardashians or that we know what Instagram and Snapchat are. But as with most aspects of preaching, having a breadth to our trove of illustrations or quotes includes more of the congregation over time. As such, there is nothing wrong with reaching back to TV shows from the 1960s or ‘70s or to books older adults may have read in college. This may require more work for younger preachers who don’t necessarily know about “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” firsthand. Then again, we expect older preachers to do some extra work to include youth-friendly illustrations. Why can’t we expect younger preachers to expend a similar level of extra effort to use quotes or illustrations more familiar to their older members?

A corollary: Preachers who themselves are a bit older need not preface all such sermon illustrations by saying, “Now, I know this is going to date me, but . . .”. No one should get the idea one needs to apologize for being older. That sends a bevy of bad messages. Then again, it would feel condescending for a younger preacher to preface older cultural illustrations by saying, “And now for you seniors out there . . .”. Both rhetorical moves—particularly if used repeatedly over time—unnecessarily undercut the larger sermon or any attempt at providing inclusive pastoral care within a sermon.

Second, preachers would do well to remember a few things that older people wrestle with perhaps a bit more than younger people do. Many of us who are getting older deal with regret. We wonder if all those working years really meant anything to anyone. Did my forty years working for an insurance company add anything meaningful to God’s kingdom? Are there ways for me spiritually to construe my past in positive ways? In preaching—as in many of areas of life—it is easier to focus on the present moment or to look to the future. But some people spend a lot of time looking back in ways that raise clouds of important questions for which they could use some biblical and theological framing.

Then there is fear. Talk to many older adults and they will tell you that although they probably pass many a day without ever having this thought cross their minds, there are moments that call them up short when they realize, “Practically speaking, I have only a short time left to me on this earth.” It’s the kind of thing that can wake you up at night. It causes a sharp intake of breath when it really hits you.

As often as not the lingering feeling such a prospect leaves behind is one of fear. You simply cannot put off forever the thought that a final breath is out there waiting for you. Soon. Will the Lord make himself large and plain and unmistakable in my last moment or in my final days? Will the promises I have clung to all my life seem more or less real when my end draws close? Are there things I can rehearse, repeat, or savor that will help me when my fears flare up? Good preaching can suggest and model such assurances, and we preachers ought not deem that doing this can happen too often or that preaching such comfort only once in a while is enough. We should not be so busy telling the younger folks how to live faithfully that we never talk about how to age well, how to die well. And if we wait only for funerals to do so, it’s a little late for at least one person per funeral.

Again, these are only a couple of ideas. Other ideas on this no doubt abound, and perhaps preachers will begin to share such wisdom just as eagerly as we swap ideas on how to preach to millennials. Every sermon we preach hits certain groups and subgroups in the church more than others. And that’s okay—as long as we are intentionally and with some frequency taking our aging sisters and brothers into account too.

This column is provided in cooperation with the Center for Excellence in Preaching. For more on the CEP, its upcoming events, and its online resources, visit cep.calvinseminary.edu.